On Monday the Utah House of Representatives opened it doors for business. Starting the session was Speaker Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper), who addressed the body as he explained his goals for the body, expected agenda, and predicted challenges.
“I view all of us in the House as a family; not majority and minority members, battling each other for control, but as brothers and sisters committed to making Utah a better place,” said Hughes, striking a hopeful tone for the session.
The newly minted Speaker continued by honoring the former Speaker Becky Lockhart (Republican – Provo) after her sudden and unexpected passing, calling her a strong leader and a longtime friend. Hughes also thanked the important women in his wife, pointing specifically to his wife as he called himself a spoke and her wife the family hub.
Hughes transitioned into the legislative agenda with a reference to the movie, Groundhog Day, where a reporter lives the same day over and over again. “For how many years have we talked about some of the same issues? For how many legislative sessions have we tinkered around the edges because the challenges seemed insurmountable in just 45 days?” said Hughes. The Speaker noted that even though Utah’s session are short and that the legislative body is part time, they must not postpone the hard issues for another year, like so many other years.
“One of those transformational issues staring us in the face is Medicaid expansion,” said Hughes, evoking an awkward pause and scattered laughter from the House. “I think I speak for this whole House in a bipartisan way when I say: We oppose an unhealthy Utah.” Hughes emphasized that Utah’s version of expansion must stand the test of time, as the program is a continuing cost to the state’s budget. “We look forward to collaborating together on this issue to find common ground and ultimately develop a solution that best serves the interest of all citizens of our great state,” Hughes added.
Early in 2014, Governor Herbert announced a deal reached with the Department of Health and Human Services to return more than $240 million in federal funds with the Healthy Utah Plan, a plan that is not expected to pass the House in its current state.
Hughes, former Chairman of the UTA Board, addressed transportation funding in Utah, calling a raise in the gas tax a simple approach to address severe long term budgetary problems associated with maintaining Utah’s secondary roads.
“We will have the opportunity to reform the funding formula into something that actually makes sense and keeps pace with inflation,” said Hughes. The Speaker then turned his attention to counties and municipalities to focus their attention to transportation funding—to include funding for not just roads, but bikes, walkways and public transit. “If they do, all ships will rise. We will help them get there,” said Hughes. According to the Interim Transportation Committee hearing in May 2014, one third of Utah’s highways are in rapid state of decay, potentially costing the state an additional $67 million in funds. Currently, legislative proposals include increasing the gas tax as well as increasing vehicle registration fees for hybrid and electric cards.
During his speech, the Speaker touched on other subject such as education funding, public lands, and the relocation of the Utah State Prison. Hughes closed by stating that “there is no better time than now for us to tackle the difficult but transformational issues that will ensure our state is destined for greatness for the many generations to come…It is our duty and obligation to try. It is our promise to do it carefully. And it is our privilege to serve.”